For Andrew Adams, an English teacher in Montreal, the new academic year has been anything but ordinary.
“I don’t know what my kids look like,” says the Grade 7 and 8 educator. “That’s a reality for a lot of teachers right now. They’ve never seen their kids without a mask.”
To overcome this hurdle, Mr. Adams encouraged his students to flex their creative skills and write about another student. He shuttled them outside where they could safely take off their masks, snap photos of each other, and conduct one-on-one interviews. The exercise is in line with his curriculum, but for a math teacher, he wonders, how can they justify seeing their students’ faces?
“The main challenge we have is kids need to resocialize and parents are hypersensitive to all these changes,” he adds. “The context [for parents] is it’s intense in the classroom and everyone is trying to do their best with the situation.”
Mr. Adams is navigating this new phase of the pandemic after months of uncertainty, lockdowns, school closures, health and safety restrictions, and online learning. “I have zero anxiety when I go to work. It’s fun and I enjoy my job. My anxiety would definitely shoot up [with online learning],” says the educator. “It’s not ideal. It’s not as personal in terms of making connections and then it’s hard to give the lesson you want.”
All things considered, Mr. Adams admits he has weathered the pandemic fairly well; however, he knows this isn’t the same for all his colleagues. For many teachers, COVID-19 is adding stress to their work lives, and as a result, their personal well-being too. A June, 2021 study from the University of British Columbia measured the effect of the pandemic on B.C.-based teachers. Anne Gadermann led the study in her role as assistant professor at the school’s Human Early Learning Partnership department.
“We were drawn to this research due to the urgent need for adaptation and decision-making in the education system to support the well-being of teachers and students in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dr. Gadermann says.
The study’s key findings include:
- During February, 2021, 80 per cent of B.C. teachers surveyed reported that their mental health was slightly or significantly worse compared to before the pandemic (whereas 40 per cent of teachers surveyed nationally in a separate study felt the same).
- Two out of five B.C. teachers reported being more likely to leave their profession than before the pandemic.
- There’s a notable lack of connection for teachers with students, families and colleagues since the start of COVID-19.
“The loss of connection was the hardest thing,” says Sarah Bourdon, a school counsellor based in Victoria, B.C. “I often work with kids and families who already experience lots of barriers in their lives … we lost contact with many of our kids …[and] we have kids who have still not returned to our school.”
When asked to describe her own experience working through the pandemic, Ms. Bourdon uses the words “burnout roller coaster.” She adds that the state of hypervigilance, which has been ongoing since March, 2020, is wearing her out. “Many educators are exhausted and experiencing severe burnout. I think many people are struggling to remember what they love about their jobs,” she says.
While her risk of getting and transmitting COVID-19 persists, Ms. Bourdon finds it difficult to feel positive. “The Delta variant has led to more exposure, and we are worried about the kids. It’s hard to believe we are still in this place,” she says. With two young children at home and parents she sees regularly, she remains on high alert to maintain her and her family’s health.
Meaghan Burden teaches in Algonquin Territory in Ontario, and she feels equally discouraged. On top of her workload and pandemic protocols, she’s managing students who feel restricted and boxed-in. “They are being over-policed in order to ensure safety while adults around them go out to eat and play golf,” she says. “Children have been the last thought in the policies our governments have created during this pandemic.”
Ms. Burden suggest school boards take the pressure off teachers and students in various ways. Her wish list includes committing to smaller class sizes, funding mental health services in every school, and temporarily pausing activities that aren’t critical to learning such as meetings and performance appraisals.
Dr. Gadermann notes that the art of appreciation is another necessary step toward creating a better working environment for educators. “Our data showed that teachers who felt recognized within their school or community for their contributions … had higher mental health, general health, quality of life, and positive job-related emotions,” she says. “Teachers who felt recognized, furthermore, had lower mental distress and lower turnover intentions.”
Mr. Adams says parents can make a difference at school for their children, too. “My advice to parents: Trust that teachers are doing the best that they can. ‘We’re all in this together,’ – keep that in mind when you are talking to your kids and their teachers.”